A worker uses stilts to replace damaged ceiling tiles at Barron Collier High School on Thursday, Sept. 21, 2017.
Collier County's Kamela Patton was one of five school district representatives who addressed a Florida Senate panel in Tallahassee on Wednesday about the fiscal response to Hurricane Irma.
Patton, superintendent of Collier County Public Schools, spoke about the lengths the district went to transform 28 of its 52 schools into hurricane shelters, which ultimately accommodated 17,000 evacuees.
Patton told the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on pre-K-12 Education about the importance of having generators.
She also asked the senators to lift the insurance cap on Florida Education Finance Funding. The state currently allots $100 per student in insurance funds to school districts, and Patton asked that districts be allowed to decide how much insurance they qualify for.
Patton said Collier County students would qualify for $4.6 million of insurance and the rest would be self-insured. Patton estimated the district spent $10 million on hurricane-related expenses.
“If that cap could go higher, we wouldn’t have to leave more money in a reserve — we could put it off on insurance,” she said.
In an interview, Patton said that after Hurricane Wilma, the Collier school district received a 75 percent reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency — but the reimbursement process took five years.
At the Senate hearing, a representative from Broward County schools said the district is still waiting on $5 million in reimbursement from FEMA for Hurricane Wilma, which hit Florida 12 years ago.
Gov. Rick Scott’s top budget adviser told a Senate committee Wednesday that legislators should set aside $127 million to cover hurricane recovery costs added to next year’s state budget. That would be $77 million more than the $50 million estimated two weeks ago.
The storm recovery costs add to a budget gap created by an increasingly expensive Medicaid program and a rise in school enrollment expected next year.
Legislators also will need to pay more toward the state’s massive pension plan to make up for an assumed rate that was lowered weeks ago due to uncertain market performance.
Addressing storm costs, Sen. Jack Latvala, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, has proposed the use of $3.8 billion the state has in reserve.
House Speaker Richard Corcoran had said the roughly $600 million in special projects lawmakers added to this year’s $83 billion budget should be freed up instead.
Patton asked that districts be given extra time to train teachers how to handle student mental health issues. Collier schools have had a spike in mental health problems among students since the hurricane, Patton said.
The school district lost 11 academic days to Hurricane Irma, but just two of those days were waived by Florida Education Commissioner Pam Stewart.
The Collier district revised its academic calendar, extending several early release days and reclaiming five student vacation days as full academic days, including one professional learning day for teachers.